Imagine the tail end of a cyclone, a blur of activity, a rush of movement so outrageous and chaotic that you can’t even keep your eyes open to watch its departure. Its wind has blown your face shut and forced the words from your mouth. It is hard to keep your head upright. The muscles in your neck have tightened and your body is a claw, wrapped around whatever stable force you grabbed onto when the cyclone first appeared, so you wouldn’t be blown away by its determination, its persistence, its motivation…its love for its job. Yeah, this time last year, I was that cyclone.
Even for me, the memory is a blur. I remember the phone constantly ringing, seeing patients, going to the office, talking to doctors,driving five counties, doing assessments and admissions, calling in labs, drawing blood, giving injections, visiting facilities, documenting and charting and documenting and charting, going to office meetings, talking to colleagues, passing myself in the hallway at home on the way to and from work, penciling in family time, squeezing in friends, working weekends, working holidays, working for Burlington and Thomasville, picking up extra patients for other sick or vacationing psych nurses, killing myself to keep my own medical appointments, leaving the house in the dark and coming home in the dark, and charting, charting, charting until midnight sometimes…
…to now, sitting at the kitchen table, in the middle of the day, drinking a cup of coffee, smoking an endless cigarette, and watching the clock slowly tick its way from one excruciating minute to the next.
Several times a day a bubble of acid trickles up from my stomach and lodges like a cancer in my throat. I close my eyes and brace against it, but inside that single moment, there is a sudden and horrific fear that I am going to choke to death. I swallow it back with an audible gulp, but it comes back up. Turns out, it’s not a bubble at all, but a word.
The very word cripples me with anger.
Last week at the psychiatrist’s office I was waiting to check in and standing in line next to a schizophrenic speaking in total, non-stop word salad. When he made it up to the window, he was able to harness much of his verbiage into somewhat understandable language, but I did have to take poetic license here to tie it all together. This narrative began after he questioned the receptionist about whether or not the office used florescent or incandescent lighting. “There is phenomenon all around us we don’t see, magnetism and electricity, light and spectrum, gamma rays and photons. There is natural and man-made, visible perceptions refracted by our own illusions, our stable orbits, these quantum theories and interactions, combusting at atomic levels before our faces and as we walk through them blindly, we see only these tangible shapes and colors of our own stagnant landscapes. If we took just one moment to examine the savage middle space, we could see the entire universe exploding in our faces in an absolute riot of purpose and lucidity and all of it in colorful, razor-sharp transparency.”
Normally this conversation would have fascinated me. I would have diagnosed and analyzed. I would have found the obvious poetry and thanked God for putting me in that line next to this philosopher who had imparted such jewels of wisdom and beauty. But I discovered that day that I am becoming very, very bitter and jaded. I sloughed off my 21-year history of being a psych nurse as easy as snake skin, rolled my eyes and said under my breath, “Oh shut the fuck up, you pompous douche bag.”
It seems everything that comes out of my mouth lately drips with a caustic poison that burns my tongue and leaves me with a bitter after-taste. I hate that I’ve said it when the words are out. I hate the looks I get. I hate the way TD looks at me with that pathetic expression as if to say, “I know this isn’t you. I know you’re angry. I’m not going to stop you from saying what you need to say.” Still, sometimes I wish she would. One morning a few weeks ago I was sitting at the table just staring out the window and wondering if total and complete silence could render someone invisible. She walked into the kitchen and said, “Having coffee?” and I said, “No, I’m testing the quality of this season’s Columbian bean production.” She could’ve said, “Fuck you, Tracy” or just shot me the bird. But no. I got the look. I wonder if she knows this look makes me feel more horrible than any words she could ever use.
It is that pathetic understanding.
I once had an MRI brain scan because I thought a bug had crawled into my left ear and taken up residence there for months. There was a constant buzzing and moving and itching and doctor after doctor after doctor told me there was nothing there. Finally, a neurologist ordered a brain scan, probably thinking some kind of massive tumor, which I had been suggesting all along, and I had the test. When the results came back totally negative, the buzzing went away and never came back. I’ve imagined myself having cancer, bursitis, frozen shoulder, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, lupus, bleeding ulcers, exploding migraines, brain damage, dementia, schizophrenia and Tourette’s. In nursing school, I suffered every ailment as we studied it, with the symptoms, and trips to the urgent care clinic were frequent. I learned early how to take my own blood pressure, which can be very tricky, and during my pregnancy, I experienced every single complication a woman can have during every trimester including pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel and a slightly lesser-known diagnosis of pregnancy-induced hormonal psychosis.
“There is paralysis in your right ankle and top and bottom of your right foot.”
This I wasn’t quite prepared for. I only imagine these things happening to me. They don’t actually happen. This is how it usually works: I build an idea up in my head based on an arbitrary sign as simple as a tension headache. This immediately leads to my conviction that I have a brain tumor, which naturally leads to my research on the Internet about brain tumors. I will then pick and choose random symptoms that match the delusions in my head, self-diagnose, call the doctor and demand the scans. They always turn out negative.
“It appears to be permanent.”
It was only during retrospection that I even noticed the symptoms. I had problems walking in a certain pair of shoes back in March. My work shoe kept flying off my right foot. I had problems launching the boat at rowing. I couldn’t balance on my right foot. I started stumbling and falling.
One day at work I walked into the office of a facility where I saw several patients and their physical therapist was talking to the secretary. They both looked up when I came in. The therapist said, “Hey Tracy, we were just watching you walk up the hallway on the camera.”
“Yeah, what’s with the march?”
I had noticed the march for a few weeks. I had lost a lot of weight and my shoes were too big. The right shoe kept flying off so I had to pick up my foot and clunk it down to keep it from doing so.
“Just the right shoe?”
“Yeah, doesn’t everyone have one foot bigger than the other?”
She made me take my shoes off and walk up and down in the office several times. I couldn’t stop the marching. “Tracy, that’s a steppage gait.”
The rest of the conversation is simply too dull and tedious to rehash.
Okay, so my foot didn’t work. It wasn’t even a big deal. I could still walk. I could still dress myself and go to work and drive.
“We are advising you against driving. The state of North Carolina is a no-report state and does not request the surrender of your driver’s license, but it will be documented in your chart that you have been advised not to drive.”
Sometimes words that sound innocuous do so because they are so vicious that they must first dull your senses to prepare you for their onslaught. It meant nothing to me at first. “You are being advised not to drive.” Until I get better. Until my foot wakes up. I can’t drive home from this appointment. I can’t drive for two weeks. “It appears to be permanent.”
There was a serious glitch in my matrix. A home-health psych nurse who drove over 1500 miles a month to see patients in five counties doing a job she loved, a job that defined her, a job from which she hoped to retire, and she couldn’t drive.
It had yet to occur to me that driving included my entire life. I had yet to realize that I was no longer able to drive to Walgreens to buy tampons.
“Physical therapy will be scheduled.”
I jumped at this. If we were considering physical therapy, there was hope! There was hope for progress and improvement!
“In most cases, this type of paralysis is reversible if it occurs from a stroke or injury. If it happens spontaneously like this, in our experience, it is usually not reversible. The goal for physical therapy will be to teach you how to be safe, to stop you from stumbling and falling down all the time.”
It was at this precise moment when words no longer meant anything to me. In the early days of physical therapy, Robin tried to get me to see that it wasn’t as bad as I was making it out to be. My therapy took place across the hall from the pediatric orthopedic waiting room and we often saw children hobbling to and from this room in strange contraptions, backwards walkers and awkward braces, wearing over-sized shoes to accommodate the steel wrapped around their legs and feet, and they hobbled along talking and chattering, laughing and yelling and hardly noticing their own deformities. Robin would say, “See him? He doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He’s marching along smiling and happy to be alive.” And to appease her, I would smile too, but deep inside I would fan the flames of my anger and let it engulf my heart and guts in a roaring, searing hell-fire big enough to char the contempt of God across the sky. If that little boy was too young to be angry at God himself, I would be angry enough for the both of us. I didn’t give a shit if it was burning a hole through my soul. It was keeping me warm.